Despite the cruel, heartless taunts from bandmates, a drummer's knowledge takes a long time to accumulate. Even if you are a skilled keyboardist, producing an authentic-sounding MIDI drum track is tedious. To avoid that tedium, shortcuts have been invented; programs such as Steinberg Groove Agent 3 or Cakewalk Sonar's Session Drummer are just two among a growing host of software drummer replacements.
Then there's Jamstix 2XL — unique among drummer plug-ins mainly because it jams. It “listens” to audio and MIDI and then improvises a real-time accompaniment and scores the accompaniment in a built-in MIDI sequencer. But it also goes much deeper than that.
WE HOPE YOU LIKE JAMMIN' TOO
Jamstix “jams” with both audio and MIDI signals. I tested Jamstix using Ableton Live 5 and an M-Audio Axiom 49 controller. I recorded a samba riff on an acoustic guitar to try out the Jam With Audio function. To get Jamstix to jam, you must use the AudioM8 plug-in: a VU meter that tells Jamstix the volume of the track that it's accompanying. To jam in real-time with Jamstix, low latency is a must.
I was surprised at Jamstix's instantaneous response to a drop in the audio level. Here's how it works: AudioM8's signal modulates a Power setting in Jamstix. Power allows you to control how powerfully Jamstix plays. Power refers to style decisions as well as note Velocity. For example, Jamstix will cross-stick and choose a more minimalist pattern when the audio drops.
The Jamstix Brain section provides several style-altering functions. The first thing I noticed while auditioning Jamstix 2XL's vast library of styles and drummers was that it applied concepts such as substitution, where a drummer will play, say, a kick on an off 16th note in one bar and then substitute it for the snare in the next bar. That and many other subtle tricks could have come straight from my old lesson manuals and syncopation books.
I was even more impressed that you can adjust those results. Like Groove Agent, Jamstix allows you to set groove and fill complexities, but there's much more. By tweaking its Brain, you can tell Jamstix what to do with its hi-hat foot during fills; what kind of cross-sticking habits it should have; whether to emphasize toms, hats, ride or percussion; whether to apply ghost notes; and how often to fill with triplets or “more cowbell!” It is a drummer with an intelligent style that you can alter with sliders, knobs and switches — not your typical session hack.
Jamstix creator Ralph Zeuner explained that the Brain is a culmination of studying many real drummer styles. Every slider effects a change in drumming habits, and all those changes are well within the realm of authentic style.
Session Drummer and Groove Agent draw on prerecorded MIDI files to produce region- and era-specific style patterns. Jamstix commands more than 50 regional styles but also lets you select 10 drummer models, which replicate — with a startling verisimilitude — the habits of well-known drummers. Rayzoon won't acknowledge the models' namesakes (such as “Carter” and “Aaron”), but “Animal” is, in fact, a model of the drumming Muppet. And it's a damn good one.
THE FUTURE OF ROCK
Jamstix's improvisation alone is pretty impressive, but that integrates seamlessly with what is otherwise a very well-rounded drum module. Its jamming proficiency makes all of its other strengths — authentic kit sounds, stylistic variations and drummer models — much more realistic and intelligent. Jamstix can also save you a lot of time, like when you use a MIDI controller instead of just a mouse. And if the Jamstix stock kit and XL packs aren't enough, you can route Jamstix to other drum modules to use their sounds.
Rayzoon is planning a percussion refill and rule-based improvising bassist for the near future. I wonder how far the rule-based automatic-musician concept could go. If we can use software to convert a Miles Davis or Oliver Jones performance into MIDI, then could there be virtual versions of those performers in the future? Zeuner thinks there are limits, and that a genius performer requires a human mind. Time will tell.
JAMSTIX 2XL > $149
Pros: Amazing versatility. Near infinite tweakability. Interacts with other musicians. Saves hours of time.
Cons: No Mac support.
PC: Pentium/2 GHz; 512 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP/Vista; host app with VSTi 2.3 support